He may play the villain in Mulan, but the real crime is his lack of recognition.
The entertainment industry can be a cruel mistress. Many hacks are promoted to international fame and fortune. Meanwhile, many artists go their whole careers without getting the recognition they deserve. One such artist is Mulan actor Jason Scott Lee.
His time to shine came in the early ‘90s. Many audiences were introduced to him in the heartfelt (if sensationalized) biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, where he played the titular martial arts icon to great acclaim.
A year later, he starred as the adult version of Mowgli in a re-imagining of The Jungle Book from The Mummy director Stephen Sommers. Although it was more akin to Tarzan than the Rudyard Kipling tale, it was also well-loved…by the five people who saw it.
Fast forward several years, and Lee’s leading roles seem to have dried up. Sure, he’s had a handful of supporting parts, several direct-to-video action sequels, and a few guest spots on TV shows like Hawaii Five-0. However, he’s nowhere near as prominent as he once was. For Pete’s sake, one of the last things I saw him in was Seventh Son, a lousy fantasy flick where he cameoed as a cartoonish bad guy.
That’s what makes it so surprising that Mulan, Disney’s live-action remake of their animated classic, features Lee in a prominent spot as the main villain. As good as that sounds, though, he has to share that spot with Gong Li as a witch. I remind you that the original Mulan had no witch; Hun leader Shan Yu was the only antagonist. Even when he wins, Lee gets shortchanged.
Mulan should not be his only major movie in years.
That, in my humble opinion, is a sin. Lee is far too talented to be as obscure as he is. Not only does he have the chops for both comedy and drama, which has helped him as a character actor, but he also has the presence, charisma, and weight to carry a film as a leading man.
The aforementioned Dragon showcases that beautifully. This poignant piece is a supreme demonstration of his abilities. You can see his passion as he captures Bruce Lee’s journey at various stages of his life, from optimistic dreamer to disillusioned outcast to satisfied star to frustrated failure to experienced teacher. He makes it all look natural, keeping you glued to the screen with an undercurrent of enigmatic intensity, infectious mischief, and emotional rawness.
This continues in his other major filmic benchmark, The Jungle Book. Here, Lee is perhaps the most animalistic of any actor to play the forest-dwelling hero. He has the feral ferocity and passionate focus of a predator and a survivor, someone who’s grown up without all the distractions inherent in human society.
As primal as he is, he never goes too over the top. He maintains his charm and draws you in with his endearing purity, conveying a great deal with his expressive eyes and seamless facial nuances.
What this film also shows off is Lee’s strength as a physical actor. The way he darts through the jungle, hunched over and traversing obstacles with instinctual ease, he genuinely seems like one of the wolf pack. As impressive is that is, it pales in comparison to what we see in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
He didn’t know any martial arts before making this film, but you wouldn’t guess that by watching him as the titular master. Never at any point does it look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing, not even during the more complicated sequences like the nunchaku. You can tell that it’s actually him performing most of these amazing, acrobatic, dangerous stunts.
More importantly, however, he faithfully emulates Bruce Lee’s movements and mannerisms. The fluid and occasionally flashy style that he often employed is superbly recreated in these fight scenes. Jason Scott Lee isn’t quite as fast as the real Bruce Lee. After all, who could be? However, he generally remains the best portrayal in the eyes of fans. Considering one of the only others is in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, though, that’s not saying much.
In any case, the Mulan actor’s multifaceted talent is not in dispute. So, the question remains: why isn’t he more active in the industry?
Why haven’t we seen him in more stuff?
The Hollywood big wigs are always lecturing us these days about representation, and yet we repeatedly hear accounts from insiders saying that they don’t follow their own advice. Lee has already proven himself as a leading man. Do they just not believe an Asian star can carry a movie?
As a firm believer in the most qualified person getting the job (and also someone who hates politics in entertainment), the last thing I want to do is pull the race card, but just look at famous folks like Jackie Chan and fellow Mulan actors Jet Li and Donnie Yen. They’re much more prolific in Chinese films than they are here.
This is in spite of the numerous Asian films across cinema history hitting big with viewers here. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Godzilla (Gojira) franchise, and the wealth of Akira Kurosawa films are just a few examples.
Plus, recent successes like The Raid, Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite, and Fresh Off the Boat have proven that audiences are still ready and willing to enjoy works featuring Asians in prominent roles.
If we’re including another medium, take a look at this year’s Ghost of Tsushima, a PS4 game that became a massive critical and commercial hit. Everyone loved it.
With that in mind, I don’t think racism is the cause of Lee’s lack of recognition. It’s likely the same with him as it is for countless others who aren’t as popular as they should be. Some sleazy Tinseltown execs simply ceased to believe he was bankable enough star for reasons absent of race or ethnicity.
After all, lots of onscreen talents aren’t as big as they used to be, such as Cary Elwes, Colin Farrell, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It’s disappointing and unfair, but it’s how it is.
Alternately, maybe the right role didn’t come around prior to Mulan. Lee’s two biggest films both had him as intensely physical characters. That claim to fame can easily lead to typecasting. His subsequent offers might have consisted of purely physical parts, roles that utilized his action chops and none of his other acting tools. He wouldn’t be the first to fall victim to that.
Adam West, for instance, had a career slump after the 1966 Batman show. Its popularity functioned as a double-edged sword.
Yes, it got his name out there, but he’d become so synonymous with that type of role that he couldn’t get away from it. As a result, he was forced to do a bunch of projects he didn’t believe in just to get by.
Then again, perhaps Lee chose to stay out of the limelight, taking a page out of Avery Brooks’s book. After a prominent role in Spenser: For Hire (and its spin-off, A Man Called Hawk), Brooks played the lead of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine throughout its seven-season run. Following that, however, he left screen acting and returned to his other passions, such as theatre and music.
Whatever the case, Jason Scott Lee deserves to be a bigger name than he is. Hopefully, Mulan is only the first of many projects in the future.
Have you heard of this underrated actor? What did you think of the Mulan remake? Who are some artists who you wish were more respected?
Both versions of Mulan are available on Disney Plus. Dragon, The Jungle Book, and Lee’s other projects are available at most retail outlets.